The People in the Pew

I recently visited my husband’s side of the family, and while there I had an interesting discussion with a teenage family friend. We were discussing feminism, etc, and I said something that disagreed with the Catholic Church. He was surprised, and asked how I could hold that position while still being Catholic. I told him discreetly that we don’t go to church anymore, etc, and he told me that while he believes in God, he’s basically a deist and definitely not Catholic.

The next day, I saw him at mass. I was there because attending mass with my husband’s family while visiting is a gesture of respect. Why he was there I’m not certain, except that his family may not know of his differences or may require him to attend with them anyway, since he’s still in high school. The moment when I glanced across the church and saw him standing there, much to my surprise, did make me think, though. How many people in the pew are like us, with questions or complete disbelief and yet still standing there?

For a long time I have resisted the idea that there are people in the pews who don’t believe, or at least, resisted the idea that there are many of them. I suppose when I first heard the idea put forward I found it insulting. For the first two decades of my life, after all, I believed with every fiber in my being. That someone could infer that there were large numbers of people in the pews who didn’t really believe the pastor’s words seemed, well, disrespectful.

Now, though, I’m not so sure.

A friend with a similar upbringing to mine recently told me that going to church makes her feel dead inside. She said she sits in the pew and listens to the pastor preaching what she already knows, and she absolutely hates it. She can almost feel her heart withering. And then she said the following:

And I sit there and look around, and I wonder, what are all these people getting that I’m not? Am I the only one out of everyone sitting here who feels this way?

Again, that made me think.

I still think it’s unfair to argue that most or half or even a significant minority of people in the pews disbelieve or have questions. I don’t like to try to read people’s minds like that. I was perfectly sincere, and I’m sure most of those in the pews are as well. I am ready, though, to admit that there are more in the pews who disbelieve or live with serious doubts than any pastor would feel comfortable admitting. And there they sit, in the pew, regardless.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Sierra

    Funny, it never even occurred to me as a teenager that other people might be missing out like I was. Since our church services were like Pentecostal ones, I felt so conspicuous as the person not falling down screaming that I sometimes cried or knelt (not because I felt God’s presence, but because I was terrified that my whole church would get raptured around me). I wonder now how many of us were contributing to each other’s fear. I probably looked just as “touched” as everybody else, in retrospect.

  • Rebecca M

    I feel the same way as Sierra. I went to an Assemblies of God church, and it looked so weird to not raise hands, kneel, dance around, etc., that you did it just to not stick out as being “backslidden.” But I never got why I would have trouble concentrating on praying but others could do it for hours. Why I sang at church just because I liked the music and not because I felt the spirit. Thinking about it now, I wonder who else felt that way too.

    • John


      I grew up Luteran and after I came to personal faith in Jesus at age 20 I eventually found myself at an AoG church. This after finding the Lutheran church was in the cemetary as far as I was concerned. I voiced it to my dad and he was upset. I didn’t care because I knew what new thing happened in me and it surely wasn’t inside that church.

      I agree with you that after being in the AoG atmosphere and attending a very conservative church that it does feel weird not to see people dancing, or raising their hands. I got to the point where I decided that a church doesn’t always need to do such things in order to worship God in the congregation. I have likened the AoG church with wanting the move of the Spirit but not having a great sense of discernment. Attach the word ‘God’ to anythin looking like a manifestation and it is of God. This includes trying to get someone to speak in other tongues.

      I understand what you say about praying as well. I have hungered in my heart to understand the moving of God in order to pray. AoG love to focus on tongues. I have confronted many there saying that tongues doesn’t love a person living in the street. Some folks see tongues as a spiritual badge of some kind and when I see it it offends me and I usually confront people because of the abuse it has been given.

      I often wonder how many in the church are athiests, agnostics, deists and so forth. There have been times that I flirted with the idea of Diesm myself just as a result of certain circumstances that I tried to make sense out of.


      • smrnda

        I knew some A of G people and, as much as they tried to pretend otherwise, they really were obsessed with the whole ‘speaking in tongues’ thing. I also knew former people in churches like that who said they were faking it, and probably everybody else was to.

    • Rosa

      I think everyone has to feel that way, at least part of the time – nobody can be on fire all the time, not for anything. Unless people only go when they’re feeling especially spiritual, you’re looking at lots and lots of people who are there for company, music, ritual, whatever.

  • cass_m

    I haven’t believed in a personal god that grants -wishes- prayers (commonly referred to as God these days) or a deity ever yet I went to church every Sunday for a year before I got married. Why? Because my Dad seemed to have his heart set on a church wedding for me. I even got confirmed. It’s a victimless crime and makes others happy. I think many people *want* to believe so there they are on Sunday. Meanwhile I get to whip through grocery shopping:)

    • Helen

      Excuse me, but this is not a victimless crime. By attending, you are legitimising your church and giving it power to influence legislation, e.g. in such small things as getting religious exemptions from equality legislation.
      You are probably right that the motivation for many is wishful thinking, but at least one should not knowingly assist them to propagate injustice.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        This seems a little judgmental. Do you know what church she goes to? How do you know that it propagates injustice? Not all churches are the same.

  • eric

    I stopped believing in the Jebus for the same reasons and around same time as I stopped believing in Santa (and no, I didn’t stop believing when I was like 24.) So I sat in church through my teenage years thinking, “These people seriously believe this?” So I might be like that teen, just went ’cause parents told you to. Luckily for me, my parents eventually respected my decisions to not be part of the church and I got to stay home on Sunday monrings playing on computers (leading to a career in computer science which is a lot more useful than bowing to a magic sky fairy.)

  • machintelligence

    It’s not only the people in the pews, but some of the people in the pulpits as well. See “The Clergy Project” at Richard Dawkins’ ” website. For more insight into the reasons why some people continue to “believe” in God, see Daniel Dennett’s speech at the 2007 Atheist Alliance International convention. It is titled Good Reasons for “Believing” in God: (you can start at 12 minutes in to skip over introductions and the presenting of an award.)

  • Deird

    Even those of us who are “believers” don’t necessarily believe the same stuff as the churches we attend. I disagree with my church on all sorts of stuff – some important, some not so important. It would be quite easy for someone to assume “she goes to an Anglican church; she thinks what I think on Issue X”, when actually I don’t at all.

  • Flag the Heretic Methodist

    You can look at my posting name and count another one. I thoroughly dislike CCM, yet go to church to visit with my community and listen to our pastor, who is a pretty excellent speaker. I’ve often wondered how many others like me there are in my own church. In my defense, my church does a lot to “feed the sheep” meaning those in need in the community, rather than building their own coffers and screaming at the Sunday morning flock.

  • Noelle

    :). So, is it the Christ followers leaving the church and the agnostics and atheists remaining for the music, coffee hour, and keeping grandma happy? Huh. I bet there are more than you know.

    I only attend church for funerals, weddings, and baptisms. I used to say that the only abusive thing my Lutheran church did to me was try to bore me to death.

  • smrnda

    I’ve had few experiences with actual religious services – a few funerals mostly when I was young where it seemed like the rule was just to do whatever was expected of you out of courtesy.

    During and after college I made a few church visits despite the fact that my family isn’t Christian at all because people invited me. I noted that at the wilder more “spirit filled” churches the idea was that they had an authentic experience whereas everybody else just had ritual. As a naturally quiet person, it just seemed they had a different ritual of jumping around and being loud which probably feels spontaneous to some people, but not to me.

    I read a book about the Cultural Revolution in China, Gang of One, where the author talks about similar wonders about who was faking it, but instead of God or church it was Chairman Mao.

    Sometimes I wonder how many people really believe or just believe in submission to authority.

    • Effie

      Sometimes I wonder how many people really believe or just believe in submission to authority.

      Hammer, meet nail!

      Authoritarian personality syndrome.

      There is a growing movement of people, mostly freethinkers, who are seeking to get Authoritarian Personality Syndrome, in the context of Dominance-Submissive Authoritarian Embrace, added to DSM-V. That syndrome, that ugly phenomenon, is how things like genocide happen. Whether it’s the Shoah, Stalin’s mass murders, or the Crusades, it can be traced back to people willing to hand over their cognitive reasoning skills to an authority figure so they don’t have to think anymore because it’s soooo haaaaard. Any kind of charismatic cult-like ideology, religious or secular, will give rise to this.

      Sadly, it won’t get through largely due to the influence of abusive myth-peddlers in the religious sector. I wish it would. There is something wrong with people like my parents who are willing to do whatever their “church” tells them, no matter how immoral or hurtful, and with the people who exert such iron-fisted control over them.

  • RowanVT

    I think church may have been a large factor of what led to my disbelief. I was not brought up ‘properly’ christian. I never retained the sunday school lessons well, and found church to be tortuously boring as a child. One of my favorite stories to have Mom tell is the time that she brought me with her to the main service, rather than sunday school. I sat there for a few minutes and then asked Mom, loudly, why we had to be there. It was boring. Mom tried to hush me, and I just got more frantic, and more loud, saying “But WHY? It’s boring! BORING BORING BORING!” She ran me out of there quickly at that point. XD

    I never, even when I believed, felt a single thing in any church service of any denomination. I had profoundly deeper experiences standing underneath a tall tree, which led to a decently long stint as vaguely pagan. I still attended church at high school, but have not attended services since.

  • Kevin Alexander

    It’s been said before, many (most?) people go to church to be with their family, with their community not because they actually believe the nonsensical doctrines.
    When we gather for a picnic or a family reunion we get the ‘thank you Jesus for all this’ out of the way at the beginning of the meal and then we get down to what really moves our souls.
    You don’t need Jesus to tell you to love your family or your friends, that just happens because you are human.

  • Eamon Knight

    I suspect the answer is different for the fundamentalist vs. mainline-liberal churches. The United Church of Canada (where I spent about 15 years decompressing from fundamentalism) doesn’t even seem to *expect* you to believe anything except that God is a Really Nice Guy and you should support the local food bank. It was mostly about the community.

    (BTW: The RCC does *not* count as a liberal-mainline church. They do a pretty good job of disguising themselves as one at the grass-roots level, but anyone who pays attention can see that the head honchos are hard-line authoritarians who really miss the days when the Pope could say “Jump!” and half the crowned heads of Europe would say “How high?”)

    • Effie

      Half the crowned heads of Europe and most of Congress still do that, though thankfully Europe seems to be loosening itself from the grip. Which is why that church is turning to Africa in the latest bid for imperial power (along with the Chinese government looking for natural resources). Nothing has changed since the days of the Roman empire. Whether it’s that Nazi or his minions in the USCCB, a bunch of criminals in fancy gear still exert terrible power over our political systems.

  • Rosa

    There’s a lot of room in a liturgical churches for people having their own opinions – nobody’s going to ask about your theology and the politics seems to be pretty same within congregations and drastically different between them. When I was confirmed Methodist as a teen (under duress) part of the confirmation ritual was promising to use the strength and sound judgement God gave me to do right in the world – no laundry list of what that was, just trust that we’d make good choices.

  • EEB

    I’ve wondered the same thing.

    I never used to feel that way at all. Like others have said, when I was younger, I always felt that *I* was the one missing out, alone, while everyone else was touching something transcendent. I threw myself into the intellectual side of things, theology and apologetics, so that I could feel some sort of connection. I was a big play actor…I knew all the right moves and things to say for people to think I was a deeply spiritual person with a special relationship to God…hell, I was studying to be a minister! No one suspected, not my family, not my closest friends.

    Now I attend church out of respect for my family. I still live with my parents (sigh) and my mother is the pastor of our church. I don’t take communion or lead worship any longer (and hasn’t *that* caused some questions), because I feel it would be disrespectful, but I attend and sing. It’s really a little thing to do that makes Mom very happy. She likes to get my opinion on the sermon, even though I don’t ever pull punches and tell her flat out if I feel something is unethical or illogical. And almost everyone I know attends the church (that’s a big problem with being disabled…it’s hard to make a new circle of friends off the internet). But I do look around some Sundays and wonder if I’m still the only feeling nothing.

  • Elin

    I find myself disagreeing with the priests and the church at times but I have never found any other church I would like to join and I do want a religious community to act within. I belong to a Lutheran church (no jumping around, no guitars and mainly hymns) but I would place myself more in the ‘general protestant cathegory’ than Lutheran. I agree with Luther’s ideas on some issues but I am much more Calvinist on some and on some I am neither.

    Sometimes I think we need church the most when our spiritual energy is at the lowest so I don’t have any problem with people sitting in the pews not believing at this given moment. If that person is still there I am sure they get something positive out of it, otherwise they would not waste several hours of Sunday sitting there.

  • SundogA

    Hmm. I’ve resisted commenting here a couple of times, not because I felt unwelcome, but simply because my position is rather drastically different. I’m an Atheist, but I was more or less raised one, and aside from a period in my late teens when I joined – then left – the Mormons, religion has played little part in my life. I was raised by my father, and he, well, he was nominally christian, but he had no good word for any organised religion. It was a part of my life he would give me advice on, but let me find my own way.
    What’s pulled me out of my shell is actually the commentary here. One of the few things that has stayed with me from my flirtation with religion was a comment by a church elder: “The more people in the pews, the more our church is taken seriously by the people who make decisions.”
    At the time, it seemed somewhat cynical, but since then I’ve come to realize that he really wasn’t speaking of what outsiders thought at all – rather of the sense of empowerment he and the other elders had. When he could say to a politician “I’m not speaking for myself, I’m speaking for five hundred parishioners!” – that gives confidence, legitimacy, and power.
    And that’s maybe a problem. Because power can be used in many ways, for good and bad. And power is transferrable – the power of representation can be converted to the power of wealth, the power of wealth to the power of politics, and many others.
    So, if you’re going to churches, you’re giving that church power, and from what I’ve read here and in other places, not having much say in where and what it’s used for.
    Are you really wanting to do that, if you’re not really believing the message?

    • Effie

      I’ve said it in many places, and I’ll say it here, too:

      If you don’t believe what your church is preaching, STOP GOING. Stop attending, stop giving to the collection plate or tithing gatherings, stop propping up abusive systems by your silent, complicit presence. Just stop. Stop it right now. Live honestly and get some integrity. Life is too short to spend living a lie.

      If your church is preaching gay or transgender hate, the inferiority of women, racism, “prosperity gospel” that holds the rich over the poor, any doctrine or cultural norm that takes away from equality of all people and responsible stewardship of the planet, and you are standing there silently feeling sick about it, STOP GOING. By attending, you are validating everything that is said from that pulpit, you are giving cover to the activities supporting it, and your presence is one more body the authoritarian up in front can brag about holding. The reason churches are so powerful in this country is because those in the pulpit know their sheep can be counted on to do what they’re told, and those in office know it, too.

      Stop going. Just stop. Find a new church, one that isn’t abusive or hateful. Stay home and worship in your own way. Volunteer somewhere on Sunday mornings instead. Do anything else but stand there in silent, obedient submission to something that deep down, you know is wrong. Make sure your name is taken off the membership records so they can’t tout you as one of theirs. When you’re called on it, hold your head high and unabashedly say why. Be an example. You will give courage to others like you, and they too will leave. Shake that power structure to its core by leaving. Nature abhors a vacuum and if enough people leave, the whole house of cards will come down.

      Stop blindly submitting. Get off your knees, get on your feet, and walk away.

  • Camden

    Lots of interesting comments here.

    I agree with the previous commenter who mentioned that there are probably few in fundamentalist churches who are just there for the ritual, in most Catholic congregations there are many who are, or who agree with some doctrines but disagree on others. I grew up attending Catholic church and I knew few people who really thought the pope was infallible. Rick Santorum is without doubt a rarity among Catholics, much more common are those who have premarital sex, “live in sin,” and use birth control.

    There are also plenty of believers who never attend church, for any number of reasons.

  • Ibis3

    Having read so many deconversion stories, I’ve noticed that most of them relate the experience of attending religious services as non-believers (at least in Christian doctrine) long before breaking away from religion. It wouldn’t surprise me at all that most church-goers do it more for the community or out of tradition, or because it would bother a spouse or parents to quit than out of sincere belief.

    “I looked around and wondered: is it just me?” NO! There’s a bunch of people just like you wondering the same thing. But it’s all about conformity and not rocking the boat.

    And then there are the “believers” who have no idea what the doctrines actually are. They go (or at least claim the Christian label) because they believe in “something” or feel spiritual, or think that Jesus “taught love”. But they don’t believe that Jesus was the son of a Jewish tribal god, a god himself who actually got up and walked around after being crucified to death. They don’t believe that some day their own bodies will be resurrected. Of course, this kind of self-proclaimed Christian is more common in urban and liberal areas. Some research on this phenomenon:

  • smrnda

    A reason I’m disinclined to go to any church or other religious service is that I don’t want to be complicit in any crimes, and I’m all with Effie on that people who put warm bodies in the pews give those who are preaching a feeling of legitimacy. Plus, I disagree with most charitable work that religious institutions do since they just do it to get a captive audience; I’m in favor of the government taking over caring for the needy so that the needy will have real, meaningful rights and entitlements.

    I’ve never been much of a joiner just since I don’t like to just be told to agree and then stop thinking. I never get that anywhere else. I’ve studied quite a few subjects and in all of those areas, not just taking what was ‘common knowledge’ and accepting it without skepticism was taken as a good thing by just about everybody, but in the religious world it’s all “be humble and just believe without a reason.” I think it’s not about humility but about making people feel guilty about not believing and getting people to quit thinking and just toe the party line. All your friends are humble enough and you’re the odd one out who demands evidence and reason or something.

  • Ismenia

    Your question reminded me of a man my Dad knows. My Dad has a lot of customers and business associates who are Hasidic Jews. There is one who does not believe. He goes through the motions, despite the strictness of their way of life but he is open (at least to my Dad) about his lack of belief. He says that the religious side is all nonsense. He once called my Dad on a Saturday and admitted that he was hiding in the cupboard under the stairs with a cordless phone because he didn’t want his wife and children to know that he was using a telephone on the Sabbath.

    When my Dad told me this I was incredulous but I can see the difficulty of his position. I know many readers of this blog will well understand how hard it is to leave an insular community if you have been raised with in the group and may be cut off by family and friends. I have no personal experience of this as my family are the kind that see religion as something you do at Christmas. I would imagine there are a lot of people in strict religious groups who don’t believe but don’t want to take the step of leaving the community.

  • Someone

    Reading this, I feel a desire to stand (very, very politely) outside of a local church with a large and readable sign that says: “If you’re just here out of habit, or social pressure, and want an anonymous place to vent: exists for this — use it if you wish.” I wouldn’t engage with anyone, merely make sure the sign was visible as people were leaving.

    I’m sure nearly everyone would ignore it — but I’m certain if I did it every Sunday for a year, at least 10 people would benefit from it, either from merely reading r/atheism, or even posting there.

    Also, if anyone has a suggestion of a better, fully anonymous place I could point people to, I’d love to hear it.

  • Rae

    I go to church with my husband’s family out of respect for their tradition, but I certainly won’t force my child to go when he is old enough to understand what it is. I dont see the harm in respecting a tradition, however for me personally it’s sometimes hard emotionally because I would like to still believe but I just can’t. So if I’m having an emotional day, I just don’t go or I camp out with my son in the nursery. I think it’s possible to balance my own needs and their need of having me there(my father on law is the pastor). or at least that’s what I’m trying now. I think it makes it harder when your family is clergy. It’s not just about what you want it’s also about his job security. Anyone else have this problem?

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      My boyfriend’s mother was a kindergarden religious teacher and I think she stopped believing halfway through but she went to mass all the weekends to maintain her job and my boyfriend who’s been an atheist all his life had to take Religion classes all through school and high school because the teacher was the sister of her mother’s boss and he didn’t want to put her job in jeopardy. There are many cases like that. The important thing is that you evaluate it yourself adn that you value your well-being too because if in the end the damage you are doing to your emotional state by going is too much, you need to stop doing it.

  • Rae

    For now it’s easier to go along a couple times a month than try to explain the doubts I have and be argued with. But I know eventually for my own sanity something will have to give. Thanks for the input and stories from your fam.